There?s an irritating trend I?m noticing more often with new technology offered up online: It starts as the curious and technologically adept download apps, read from new publications, and sign up for services with a lot of buzz and discussion on Twitter, Facebook and blogs. Many are free but some of the most interesting, from huge music streaming services to small scale, members only audio content are not.
It’s on these payment models which give many pause. Clich?d arguments usually appear which emphasize how online models only succeed when they are free, and how many equally good free alternatives already exist. The majority move on to other options.
That’s a problem.
Free always has a cost. I?ve downloaded ?free? apps that crash, are rarely updated, or have pixelated, annoying ads that waste my time. I?ve read from ?free? blogs that carbon copy press releases with little insight or unique analysis. I?ve watched ?free? video clips that are poorly edited and produced.
Given the high volume of content I read online, Readability, a new subscription based web and mobile reading app, seemed like a good fit; I decided to sign up for a month and try it out on my Mac, iPad and iPhone. Four weeks and over a hundred read articles later, while the experience isn’t perfect, I’d recommend it to almost anyone, especially those that read frequently from blogs and other online sources. The HTML5 mobile app has some bugs, but my current pairing of Readability on the desktop and Instapaper for mobile makes for an excellent experience.
Readability is a twist on existing apps like Instapaper with a built in compensation scheme for content writers and publishers. The app’s foremost objective is to deliver an uncluttered reading experience for what’s online. Users find any web page article of interest (e.g. blog post, news story) and use a browser based extension or bookmarklet to strip the article down to its essence: No ads, ample white space, clear typography, and sparse imagery. In addition, 70% of subscribers’ membership fees go directly to the publishers and writers behind articles read through Readability. That often translates to pennies to the writer per article read, but cumulatively it adds up. I see Readability’s payment system as one step closer to a paid ecosystem that doesn’t rely on traditional sources of revenue like banner ads and paywalls. The whole process also requires almost zero commitment on the part of content publishers, just a registration with readability.com to receive revenue.
Considering the App Store’s maturity I’m surprised how many new iOS apps like Pulse and Pocket Casts deviate significantly from Apple’s native visual style. Back in 2008 or 2009 such wide deviations and experiments were expected, yet today I’m downloading apps with solid functionality and design in a package that feels and looks like something Apple could have never designed; that?s a problem.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting developers that blindly copy the company’s aesthetic to automatically expect greatness. Originality of design and function, not to mention solid customer support and a well written code base are all critical factors behind app success. Nevertheless, the appeal of Apple?s native app look shouldn?t be underestimated: Remember a huge subset of iOS users spend most of their time buried deep within Apple’s native apps (e.g. Safari, Calendar, Mail, Messages), only occasionally branching off into other third-party apps. If a third-party app it just looks or feel too different from Apple?s approach, especially for novice users, it runs a risk of being ignored or eliminated. In addition, the bias of the Mac tech elite (e.g. John Gruber, Macworld) have toward more native Apple looking apps is significant; often it’s their recommendations that trickle down to other power users (e.g. yours truly) who in turn ultimately spread their influence to a wider, more casual audience.
The enthusiastic response to this month’s iPad 2 launch made me reflect on how far technology has come in recent years: First smart phone computing went mainstream with 2007’s iPhone, followed by tablet computing’s exponential growth years later in 2010 with the iPad. The emergence of these new markets caused many web sites and apps last year to cater to three distinct platforms: desktops, smart phones, and tablets.
I’d argue in recent months we’ve reached another turning point: With advances in technology like cloud syncing and fast mobile processors the wall of separation between each aforementioned platform is breaking down. Whether in the office with my 30 inch display, at home on the couch with the iPad or on the subway with my iPhone, I’m not just doing work (writing, code editing, news consumption), I’m doing the same work. That’s a big paradigm shift from 2009 or 2010. Put another way, in 2011, cross platform coverage isn’t enough; consistency between those platforms emerges as a more critical factor.